VAN NUYS — Borrowing a key tactic from defense attorneys in the British nanny trial, lawyers representing an Illinois woman charged in the shaking death of her infant grandson tried to argue that the boy died from a previous head injury. But a Van Nuys jury rejected the defense argument, convicting Shirley Ree Smith on Monday of child endangerment.
Smith, 37, showed no reaction as the clerk read the verdicts by the seven-woman, five-man jury. Facing a maximum of 25 years to life behind bars, she will be back in court Dec. 23 for sentencing by Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Falomi K. Pierson expressed relief in her victory.
"I'm gratified that the jury saw through the junk science defense in this case," Pierson said. "It would have been easy for the jury to throw up their hands, given the complexity of the medical testimony. But they used patience, common sense and intelligence to come to a reasonable conclusion."
Pierson argued that Smith lost her temper and violently shook 2-month-old Edzel Dean Glass III after he woke up crying and in need of a diaper change in Van Nuys last year.
Defense attorney Ubiwe K. Eriye criticized the verdict and even argued with one of the jurors afterward.
"I'm stunned beyond belief," Eriye said. "Medically, she's totally innocent of the charges. There was no trauma to the baby's brain. How could you have a shaking without the brain being traumatized?"
One of the doctors testified the infant died from sudden infant death syndrome. Another contended the child died from an old brain injury that "re-bled"--the same theory used to defend British au pair Louise Woodward against charges she shook an 8-month-old boy to death in Massachusetts.
Prosecutors countered that testimony by calling Dr. David L. Chadwick of the San Diego Children's Hospital and Medical Center, one of more than 70 doctors who signed a letter criticizing the Woodward defense theory as providing a "courtroom diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis."
Chadwick testified that Edzel, who suffered brain contusions that bled into his optic nerves, died of violent shaking. He also said the injuries to the baby were so severe that he succumbed moments after the head trauma was inflicted.
Ultimately, like the panel that convicted 19-year-old Woodward of second-degree murder, jurors in the Smith case said they believed Smith was solely responsible for the death.
"We had three causes [for the injuries]: SIDS, falling off a couch and an assault," said one of the jurors, who declined to identify himself. "We applied the facts to the law. It wasn't SIDS, it wasn't falling off a couch, so you're left with an assault and the facts applied."
The Inter-Agency Council on Child abuse and Neglect reports that 40% of child abuse deaths are the result of head injuries caused by shaken-baby syndrome, blunt force trauma or both.
Authorities say these incidents are difficult to prove because there is often no witness. Further complicating matters is that testimony must show a child's injuries were inflicted rather than a natural occurrence, prosecutors say.
Authorities said that months before the Nov. 30, 1996, killing, the defendant moved from Illinois to the Los Angeles area. She was staying at a relative's apartment with Edzel, his mother, brother and sister.
Edzel's mother had fed, washed and dressed the baby, then put him to bed on the living room sofa with his 14-month-old brother.
Sometime between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m., she went into another room to listen to music and fell asleep. Smith, slumbering on the floor below the sofa, awoke at 1:30 a.m. and found her grandson on the floor, checked the infant and put him back on the sofa.
About 1:30 a.m., Smith said, the infant cried. Prosecutors contended she then shook him, inflicting the fatal injuries. Smith said she did not shake him, but went to the bathroom. When she returned, she said, the baby's head flopped back and she noticed that he had vomit around his mouth and was bleeding from the nose.
After a call to 911, the baby was taken to a Mission Hills hospital where he was pronounced dead.